Programme Paper

Project: US and the Americas Programme

Nicolas BouchetFormer Chatham House Expert
Nicole Bibbins Sedaca

This paper reviews the history and capacity of the United States to promote democratization abroad, as well as the extent and impact of its efforts, and prospects for future engagement.

A voter puts her ballot in the box during the election in Cite Soleil, Haiti 20 March 2011. Candidates Michel Marley and Mirlande Manigat square off in the presidential election. Photo by Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images.A voter puts her ballot in the box during the election in Cite Soleil, Haiti 20 March 2011. Candidates Michel Marley and Mirlande Manigat square off in the presidential election. Photo by Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images.

Summary points:

  • Democracy promotion has long been a key component of US foreign policy, based on the belief that democratization abroad contributes to achieving American security and economic objectives. However, the United States government has periodically neglected it when other, more direct security or economic objectives were deemed more important.
     
  • Different administrations have prioritized different regions, countries or issues over time, while a growing NGO community has consistently been an active and comprehensive advocacy voice and programmatic power behind democracy promotion.
     
  • Over the last 30 years American democracy promotion has played a clear – albeit varying – role in supporting democratization in many countries, although it cannot be seen as the primary cause in any one case.
     
  • A wide variety of internal factors in countries where democracy promotion has been attempted, including domestic capacity, history, development of democratic institutions and civil society, contributes to the environment in which US efforts take place and thus their impact. Likewise, factors on the US side such as long-term commitment, links between rhetoric and action, consistency with other policies, and creative adaptation of tools have contributed to the success of democracy promotion efforts. While there is no exact recipe for democracy promotion, the combination of these factors defines its efficacy.
     
  • US democracy promotion capacity has improved over the last 30 years, but US actors now face an increasingly difficult global environment. As many of the remaining non-democratic countries have entrenched regimes or are failing or failed states, supporting democratization has become extremely challenging. In the light of this improved capacity and more difficult environment, the impact of US democracy promotion is holding steady – neither increasing nor declining.
     
  • The US commitment to democracy promotion is not likely to change, although implementation will vary depending on the administration and political climate. Developments in the Middle East, as well as the economic situation and the role of rising global powers, will affect the degree to which the United States prioritizes democracy promotion within its foreign policy.
     
  • Long-term, comprehensive and consistent engagement across time and policy sectors and between rhetoric and action are vital to more effective democracy promotion strategies. Additional potential could be realized through greater coordination among actors, both between and within the various sectors (public, private and non-profit).
     
  • The United States needs to ensure that its bureaucratic structures are solidly oriented towards integrating democracy promotion into its broader international efforts. It needs to regularly assess which tools and actors are most effective under which circumstances, taking domestic factors into account, and to look strategically at optimizing its economic and financial aid, multilateral partnerships, social media, and engagement of the private sector to achieve its objectives.